Home >Opinion >Online-views >Ujjwala: The nudge story

The elegance, and genius, of the nudge theory lies in its ability to render decipherable aspects of praxis—that have been employed by individuals, governments and private institutions alike for decades. 

Richard Thaler—co-proponent of the theory who won the Nobel Prize in economics this year—shows how positive reinforcements and indirect suggestions engender compliance to influence incentives and decision-making of groups and individuals while emphasizing free choice—nudges cannot be mandates. 

Though there has been much deliberation on nudges, one government scheme in India that has not got its deserved attention in this context is the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. Its prolific success in terms of getting new liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to the poorest households in the country—from 87 lakh (8.7 million) in 2014 to 483 lakh (48.3 million) in 2017—can only be attributed to quintessential Thaler-ian nudging.

Nudge theory elaborates a plot of heuristics, many of which have been employed along the length of the supply chain under the Ujjwala scheme. 

Behavioural psychology distinguishes between intuitive and deliberative behaviour. ‘Nudgists’ believe that the following are some of the prominent strategies to influence “natural" assessment (intuitive behaviour). 

First is the availability heuristic—that if something is heard or seen a lot then people start questioning it less. The most obvious tool through which this is done is the mass media. The Ujjwala scheme held 50,000 safety camps in 545 days, says K.M. Mahesh, deputy secretary (LPG) at the ministry of petroleum and natural gas (MoPNG). Advertisements, videos, pamphlets and the so-called LPG panchayats have proven to be highly effective in countering commonly held misperceptions. 

Additionally, another important aspect to consider for effective nudging is to understand how something is perceived in relation to a stereotype or assumption. For instance, in a village I mapped some families said that before they started using LPG they believed that cooking through biomass is better for digestion. They are partially convinced of the falseness of the assumption through attending LPG safety camps held in the village. 

For a below poverty line (BPL) family, getting a LPG connection, though aspirational in many ways, was an inaccessible thought given the costs involved. By giving the nudge of interest-free loans, being pro-active and reaching the doorstep of the customer rather than waiting for the marginalized families to negotiate their way through a maze of procedures, the ministry made the possibility of a BPL woman owning a LPG cylinder accessible for the potential beneficiaries of the scheme. That nudged the popular imagination of the economically deprived section of society. 

Much behavioural work considers that there is a tendency of human beings to be loss averse and maintaining status quo for the fear of the unknown. Such aversions are being combatted through safety guideline posters with pictorial depictions that are mandatorily hung over the gas stove at the eye’s level. The planned exercise of MoPNG to conduct one lakh LPG panchayats in a little over 400 days will, presumably, also be strong nudge towards achieving the government’s target of 5 crore (50 million) connections by 2019.

However, the nudges have been given not only to the demand side but also to the suppliers to complete the circuit of nudging, so to speak. 

The district nodal officers (DNOs) of the OMCs were promised recognition and an award based on certain criteria. The first such award function was held in Lucknow where 39 DNOs were awarded. 

Significantly, DNOs had videoconferences with executive directors of the OMCs, state LPG heads, senior officials at the MoPNG and, occasionally, the minister of MoPNG, Dharmendra Pradhan. Such direct exchanges provided a huge morale boost to employees who would otherwise not have a chance to interact with their top bosses.

Additionally, every DNO was asked to have a social media account uploading photographs—this was the first time that employees apart from corporate communication officers were allowed to interact with the press. The DNOs frequently tag Pradhan and top officials of MoPNG showcasing their work, who in turn often respond encouragingly. Not only did this cut through the red tape but it also devised a crucial feedback system for achieving the targets for new LPG connections. Sustaining the nudges and devising newer ways is a necessary condition to make the full transition to clean fuel for the country. 

The unfolding story of Ujjwala emphasizes the salience of relatively small and contextual changes that re-wire choices and motivations, and not sacks of money, that ensure the success of a social project. Therein may lie some solutions to the overwhelming and seemingly intractable problem of global poverty. 

Shreerupa Mitra is a cultural anthropologist who is currently researching the energy sector, among other things. She is also a consultant with HPCL.

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